Rugby mania is coursing through Japan. It’s not just the sudden of burst of generously sized foreigners wandering around Tokyo, Sapporo and Kumamoto. Japan’s national team is beating virtually all expectations, even besting top-ranked Ireland.
Yet the Rugby World Cup is really a dry run for the main event of Shinzo Abe’s premiership: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Hosting the Summer Games is a career topper for Abe, whose grandfather, the former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, brought the 1964 Olympics to Tokyo. Fifty-five years on, that event still enjoys a bull market in nostalgia. It marked Japan’s return to the world stage from the ashes of war and humiliating defeat.
And wow, did it ever. Japan’s futuristic bullet trains, avant-garde stadiums and neon-lit skylines captured the global imagination. The nation hadn’t just risen, phoenix-like, it was suddenly setting the technological tone, serving as a preview for Japan’s economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s.
Can Japan do it again? Doubtful. In fact, there are valid reasons to worry next year’s Olympics might do more to limit Japan’s potential than unleash it.
For Abe, scoring the Olympics was partly about unfinished family business. Though his beloved grandfather secured the 1964 Games, history has been less kind on account of Kishi’s wartime exploits. He was part of the cabinet of Hideki Tojo that ordered the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In the mid to late 1930s, Kishi played various senior roles in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. It was a ghastly and brutal an episode as historians found amid World War II. Kishi beat the odds–and war-crime charges. He became prime minister in 1957.
Much of what’s driven Abe in politics can be described as Kishi legacy rehabilitation. In Abe’s first stint as leader from 2006 to 2007–and in the current one since 2012–he’s worked to whitewash Japan’s wartime aggression. Securing the 2020 Games was in part a historical bookmark to open yet another period of rebirth–this time from a two-decade deflationary malaise.
Might Japan be courting a post-2020 funk instead? I don’t just mean the debt-laden hangover from giant and costly facilities that will go underused. It’s more the 1964-like magical thinking behind the dialogue surrounding Tokyo 2020.
Indonesia’s bid for the 2032 Olympics has a certain logic. Surely, its infrastructure needs could benefit from becoming the fourth Asian nation to host the Games after Japan, South Korea and China. But Japan’s construction boom amounts to redundant upgrades to already highly developed megacities.
Japan has long since been discovered. A weaker yen, relaxed visa restrictions and aggressive marketing already morphed Japan into a tourism mecca. In 2018, Japan welcomed more than 31 million tourist arrivals, equal to one-quarter of the population. Already, cities like Kyoto are studying ways to limit tourism, or ease the side effects from overcrowding to pollution.
Asia’s No. 2 economy doesn’t need stadiums, but a societal transformation. It needs to rekindle its innovative spirits, increase gender diversity, reduce rigidities across industries, improve productivity and welcome more foreign talent to offset an aging and shrinking population–talent that stays on long after the five-ring circus of sporting events leaves town.
Abe views Tokyo 2020 as the key to the “revitalization of Japan.” The city’s governor, Yuriko Koike, says the Olympics can “usher in a new Tokyo.” But where are the underlying politics to bring about this epochal change? A few weeks of events will come and go. Japan, though, will be stuck with the same dismal demographics, the same crushing debt load, the same overbearing bureaucracy and the same risk aversion that starves it of a vibrant tech startup scene.
In the magical thinking of Abe’s inner circle, 2020 is a, well, game-changer. Just as 1964 was a chance for his grandfather’s generation to showcase technological advancements, 2020 is Abe’s moment to display Japan’s “Society 5.0” street cred. Trouble is, China, Korea and Indonesia also are moving upmarket and innovating. Indonesia, for example, has already produced twice as many “unicorns” as Japan.
Japanese society often does a poor job keeping up with technological change. A few weeks of medal ceremonies, it’s worth noting, will do little to restore Japan to its 1980s innovative greatness. It won’t increase productivity, internationalize corporate practices or end senior-based promotion practices that reward mediocrity. It won’t morph Tokyo into a global financial center or endear Japan Inc. stocks to overseas investors.
The Olympics won’t usher in a pro-growth energy policy that moves Japan away from coal and nuclear reactors. It won’t prod millennials or General Z members to take greater risks. It won’t narrow the gender pay gap or challenge Japan’s patriarchy. And it won’t incentivize companies to boost wages, kicking off the virtuous cycle Abe hoped to generate.
Only bold, forward-looking reforms can generate the upgrades needed to restore Japan to vitality. The economics of nostalgia in which Abe’s government is indulging only treats the symptoms of why Japan’s economy has underperformed for 20 years.
Sure, Japan is politically and societally stable. Nor have deflation and stagnant wages led to the kind fissures–crime remains low and homelessness rare–they might emerge elsewhere. But in the Chinese era, Japan has two choices. One, accept lower living standards as regional upstarts boom. Two, ramp up innovation that creates new jobs and wealth.
Clearly, option No. 2 is the wiser route. But if Tokyo thinks the Olympics is the answer, it’s setting itself up for failure. How did the 2016 Games work out for Brazil? Or 2012 for a United Kingdom torching its future with the brawl over Brexit?
Did the 2008 Games revolutionize China, which has become even more of a black box since then? In 2004, Greece won a gold medal for overspending and hastened the onset of a financial crisis from which it’s still extricating itself.
Japan isn’t courting a crisis. But history is almost sure to show that the seven years between winning the Games in 2013 and the actual event were a lost period for major policy moves to ensure forward motion. Japan needs to level the playing fields, not just provide a few for visiting athletes.
I am a Tokyo-based journalist, former columnist for Barron’s and Bloomberg and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” My journalism awards include the 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary.